Collective Choice and Voting
The common methods for collective choice involve voting. Voting brings to mind democratic decision-making, which is conventionally understood to mean reaching social decisions on the basis of majority rule. This understanding of voting and democracy is the basis of both classical liberal thought, as in Locke, and radical thought, in Rousseau,1 and was the force behind the great democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century in the American colonies and France. As journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria states, “We live in a democratic age. Over the last century the world has been shaped by one trend above all others—the rise of democracy. In 1900 not a single country had what we would today consider a democracy: a government in which every adult citizen could vote. Today 119 do, comprising 62 percent of all countries in the world.”2
Voting is the common practice in meetings and organizations at all levels worldwide to arrive at collective choice. Votes are held to make choices in local and national elections; in the Security Council of the United Nations, where five members must vote in agreement; in board meetings of companies or charities, where there may be six to twelve people deciding policy; by text message for American Idol; by a show of hands in favor of an idea at school; and in a myriad other situations. Voting is a way of resolving controversies or reaching collective decisions that express a collective preference. It is a ritualized bargaining process, whether collectively agreed on by participants involved or imposed on them.
Voting in different circumstances follows different schemes, and the politics of contests between two parties may involve many familiar tactics, such as promises, threats, commitments, warnings. If more than two outcomes are possible, voting has the character of being a game in game theory terms. Strategic approaches may influence results when the game is played to one’s advantage. An introductory problem from Schelling’s course illustrates the importance of voting rules and the degree to which seemingly predictable rules can at times be manipulated by strategic action. Understanding how voting rules work can help in achieving decisions that reflect group collective will.